3rd Sunday of Easter
TEXT: Luke 24:13-35
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. (Luke 24:13-16)
Who would not want to receive a standing ovation? Who would not want to hear: “Good job!” “You’re wonderful!” “I appreciate what you’ve done!” “Thank you!” … ?
My guess is, just about all of us appreciate gaining a little recognition. Without recognition, who am I? Without recognition, who are you? Without recognition, we’re strangers to one another. Gaining recognition makes all the difference in the world.
Recognition. I saw it one day at the airport, on the face of a little girl waiting with her parents at the arrivals gate. Her eyes were searching this ocean full of strange faces and then—suddenly—those eyes lit up! Grinning from ear to ear, pigtails bouncing, yelling “Grampa! Grampa!” she ran to a man whose arms were extended wide in joy. Because he recognized this little one. He picked her up in his arms and gave her a kiss. What a marvelous scene! What a wonderful thing to witness. In an airport full of strangers, what that grandfather and granddaughter enjoyed was a moment of recognition.
In today’s story from Luke’s gospel, we see an absence of recognition. The risen Lord has joined Cleopas and his friend on the Road to Emmaus, but for some reason their eyes are kept from recognizing Jesus. Stopping, standing, looking sad, Cleopas says to the one who has joined them, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”
He asks them, “What things?”
They reply, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth …”
Now, doesn’t that make you want to scream? I want to yell, “Look you two, can’t you see? It’s Jesus who is standing right next to you!” Why can’t they recognize him? The text does not say that Jesus was in disguise. It just says, “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”
But how? Is Jesus playing tricks on them?
Or is it because Jesus is out of context? The last time I couldn’t recognize a familiar face was because that person was out of context. I was at a meeting and there came a woman who found a place at a nearby table and sat down. When she saw me, she immediately flashed a smile, waved at me, and said, “Hi, Gary!”
Well, she obviously knew who I was, but who was she? I did not recognize her. She looked familiar. But she wasn’t from my own church. Maybe she was from my son’s school. Who was she? It was driving me crazy.
After the meeting I had an opportunity to catch up with her, and I said, “I apologize, I know you. I know I know you, but I don’t know you. Who are you?”
She said, “Gary, I’m your dental hygienist.”
Of course! If she had shown up wearing some scrubs and a mask with goggles, and if I had a numb lip, maybe I would have recognized her.
Was that the trouble Cleopas and his friend were having on the road to Emmaus? They remembered a crucified Jesus. They remembered a dead Jesus. He was dead. Period.
A risen Jesus is out of context. Is that why those two did not recognize him? It sounds like a good explanation, but … I don’t know.
What I do know is that I want Jesus to let these two in on his identity. “Come on Jesus, tell them who you are!” But Luke drags out the scene, allowing Cleopas and his friend to tell Jesus all they know—about Jesus!
“[He] was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and … our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” (vv.19-21)
And then they tell the Resurrected One about the Resurrected One: “Some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.” (v. 23)
They tell Jesus—the one they cannot see—about Jesus, the one they did not see, saying: “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” (v. 24)
No recognition! How frustrating! Imagine having all the evidence of a risen Lord. You can remember the words that he spoke, telling you again and again, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Luke 9:22)
You have the stone rolled away, the empty tomb, the angels in dazzling clothes urging you to remember: “Remember, how [Jesus] told you, ‘The Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’” (Luke 24:6-7)
Imagine having all the evidence of a risen Lord—his words, the words of the angels—and now you have the risen Lord standing right in front of you … and you cannot recognize him! You just stand there, staring at a stranger, looking sad.
Well, that’s not so hard to imagine, is it? Many of us know what it is like to walk away from an Easter morning looking sad.
We know what the Lord said about love, grace, forgiveness, and new life. We have the words of the angels. We have the story of resurrection. We can dress up in Easter colors and sing, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.” We can shout: “Christ is alive!”
But the brightness of the sanctuary and the scent of the Easter Lilies can fade a mile or two down the road. Soon the Easter trumpet transitions into the car horn blasting at that rude driver who cut in front of us.
We do not have to travel too many miles down the Easter road before we’re caught in the traffic of this world—in the hard realities of what we see and know. We have friends who suffer and die. We are overtaken by our worries and frustrations. We get easily angered by time lost. We get bitter about what is as opposed to what should have been. Our dreams of the perfect life have been shattered, and we just can’t seem to put the pieces together again.
“We had hoped that he was going to be the one to redeem Israel.” We hoped he would redeem us. We had such high hopes! How far do we get from Easter before we stop on the road and stare at one another and look so very sad? Any stranger can recognize the disparity between what we say we believe and how we actually behave. “Oh, how foolish you are,” says the stranger, “and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” (v. 25)
I can remember traveling down the Easter road a few years ago, in Kamloops. And I was looking sad, frustrated, bothered, in a foul mood. My problem?
Well, you see, in Kamloops there’s this thing called the New Life Mission, which is a kind of shelter and soup kitchen for homeless men and women. It’s also a recovery centre for people with substance abuse issues. And it has a late-morning chapel service every day, led by local preachers.
I was one of those local preachers. I was one of the people on the roster to do this—but it was not my day to preach. However, the phone rang. And I answered it.
It was one of my friends from the ministerial association. He was supposed to be leading Chapel at the New Life Mission in about an hour … but he was unavoidably delayed. He couldn’t make it. Could I please go in his place and do something?
Of course, I said yes. But inwardly, I was saying … “DRAT!” I didn’t need this … not after the week I’d had. I was worn out. But what could I do? I scrambled to find an old sermon that wasn’t too long, and I put on my best pastoral smile, and I headed down to the New Life Mission.
I got to the mission a few minutes early, and I met the volunteer who was going to be playing music that day, accompanying our singing on his guitar. He gave me a great big smile that came equipped with a missing tooth right up front, and in a deep voice he introduced himself as “Alphonso.”
Well, Alphonso launched into a story about his life—about the terrible side of alcohol and cocaine addiction. He told me about having been kicked out of his house; and then kicked out of his mother’s house—and then out of his brother’s house, and his sister’s house, and his aunt’s house.
He said, “Pretty soon there wasn’t any house left to be kicked out of, and I was on the streets.” He shared his pain, and I felt as though I could reach out and touch his wounds.
But then he said, “A stranger rescued me and got me into the program here, and God is so good. God is so very good. I’m thankful that God never gave up on me. I got a job, and a job gave me a home, and a home gave me a family. God is so very good.”
After the chapel service, I took advantage of the free lunch that was always offered in the cafeteria. I picked a seat at the table across from a woman who told me how touched she had been by my recycled sermon.
And then she said, “I thank God that I have a roof over my head. I thank God that I have food to eat! I’m learning how to type, so I can get a job. I thank God for all that, and I thank God for you, too.”
But she went on, and what she told me then almost made me cry. “Without people like you,” she said, “who help make this place possible, I don’t know if I would be alive. I just thank everyone I see, because you never know who the angels are among us.”
There was one resurrection story after another that day. I ended up staying there long after lunch was over. At one point, I wandered into the kitchen to get another cup of coffee. And there was a teenager holding a box of animal crackers. She smiled at me and held out the box. “Want one?”
Of course I did. I love animal crackers! I reached down inside that box and pulled out a cookie, and I looked at it. When it comes to animal crackers, I always want to know what I’m eating. It was a lion. Then the girl reached into the box and said, “I got a lion too!” Then she laughed and said, “God bless you!”
And I said, “God bless you …”
Before I went back to my office, I had a conversation with one of the mission staff. What she said will always stick with me. She said: “I’m not saying that we don’t have failures. Sometimes we don’t hear back from our graduates, and when we don’t hear back, we worry. Most of the time we don’t hear back because they’ve fallen off the wagon and are embarrassed to call us.”
She said, “I’ve gone down to the police station in the middle of the night and told a young girl, ‘When you get out of jail, I’ll be right here for you! Don’t you ever think that I’ve forgotten about you. I haven’t. I haven’t forgotten about you … because God never forgets about you!’”
As I got into my car to go back to the church, I thought about a God who never gives up on anyone. I thought about how we can’t, either. I thought about strangers who come out of nowhere to reach out a hand. I thought about “angels unaware.” I thought about past suffering and new hope. I thought about how miserably my day had started, and how good it was now.
I thought about all of these things, as they mixed in my mind with that aftertaste of animal crackers and strong coffee. And you know, that aftertaste—and all those resurrection stories … well, it reminded me of Communion. And the one I thought was a stranger… “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight.” (vv. 30-31)
As we walk this Easter road, we can either stand around looking sad, or we can stop feeling sorry for ourselves and just listen to Jesus’ words … listen, and believe, and do! Visit the strangers. Feed the hungry. Lift up the poor. Taste and see that the Lord is good! And if you do that, I promise you that you will gain a little recognition. For you will not only see the risen Christ in others, but others will see the risen Christ in you!
Jesus is alive! Thanks be to God.